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We’re living in a golden age of beauty products: There are more choices than ever, more transparency with regard to formulas, and tons of natural options that actually work—even in the realm of hair care. That said, all the possibilities can be a little overwhelming, and the price differences between them frankly confounding. 

We’re seeing more and more budget buys that rival the expensive shampoos—just think of hairstylist Kristin Ess’s beloved Target line. If your drugstore find makes your hair look like you got it professionally styled, you have to wonder: What are you really paying for?

As it turns out, there are a few things that cause price differences. So we turned to the experts—celebrity hairstylist Tommy Buckett, Sally Hershberger stylist Scott Fabian, and cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat.com—to get the lowdown on what’s really worth it.


“Shampoos that tend to include natural elements might cost more,” says Buckett. Also, for indie brands, small batches of imported ingredients can raise prices, whereas bigger labels (Pantene or Garnier, for instance) may use components made in a lab (that aren’t necessarily good for your hair, Buckett points out) and can get discounted prices on bulk orders.

So if you’re not one to read the back of your shampoo container, it could be worth splurging. Especially since, as Buckett notes, spending a bit more on less-processed ingredients might just save you money in the long run: Expensive products are typically more concentrated, so a little goes a long way.

That said, the formulation isn’t always the reason why one shampoo is a bigger splurge than another. “More often, the price discrepancy is due to the brand and packaging,” Robinson explains. However, the bottle, he says, should never be more than a third of the shampoo’s total cost.

If you’re looking for drugstore options, Fabian stands by Pantene products and Buckett suggests Garnier. (Both offer shampoos with healthy, hydrating ingredients, like natural oils.) Now go forth and be free of bad hair days—with no big expense to your wallet. 


This story was published in September 2018. It has been updated.

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